DAILY POST EDITORIAL
One of the most touching anecdotes to come from the remembrances of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was her friendship with fellow Justice Antonin Scalia.
Politically, they were complete opposites. Scalia was a conservative while Ginsburg was the liberal leader of the court, not to mention a feminist and cultural icon. But they and their families would spend New Years holidays together and they shared a love of opera and fine wine.
It’s worth considering their friendship as we enter the election season. The nation and our community have become deeply polarized.
When the Post began the process of deciding whom we would recommend in the Palo Alto City Council race, we were not only looking for effective, informed and articulate candidates, but people who could put aside their differences like Ginsburg and Scalia and respect their colleagues. Much of what a City Council does isn’t political, it’s solving problems like street repairs or library staffing with the goal of making the city a better place to live.
Readers may recall that in the past, the Post has endorsed socialists, Libertarians, Democrats, Republicans and Greens for mid-Peninsula city council seats, though those races are officially nonpartisan.
In the Palo Alto council race, the lines are drawn between people who want to limit growth and those who favor more housing. And we’ve recommended people on both sides of that spectrum in the past and will do so today. In fact we’re open to supporting anyone on the spectrum as long as they have a record — or have the potential — of making our community a better place to live.
That said, here are our choices for the four seats on the Palo Alto City Council.
Pat Burt is our first choice. After watching him for nine years on the Planning and Transportation Commission and eight years on council, we know he is principled, well-informed, able to make tough decisions and effective. He has held the city manager’s feet to the fire and demanded accountability.
This year he has been pushing for sensible police reforms, such as eliminating binding arbitration in disciplinary matters so the city can fire bad cops.
In June, when City Manager Ed Shikada imposed a 10-day curfew in Palo Alto, it was Burt who was raising questions about whether the manager could use the COVID-19 emergency declaration to order the curfew. Burt raised many other points as well, and within a couple of days Shikada dropped the curfew. We don’t know if Shikada backed down because of Burt’s criticisms, but Burt took the lead in challenging what was likely an illegal order when other council members were afraid to speak up.
When the council was cutting about $40 million from the budget earlier this year, it was Burt who suggested that council postpone some of the city’s capital projects, like building the new police station, and apply the money to ongoing daily operations. While council didn’t agree with his suggestion, many of the 10 candidates in this race are echoing what Burt said.
His experience with the budget will be useful to council in 2021, the year when property tax collections are expected to drop because of property devaluations due to business closures. If elected, Burt will be the only council member who was around when the city had to cut the budget in the wake of the 2008-09 recession. That kind of experience will be helpful.
Ajit Varma, director of products at WhatsApp and a longtime Palo Alto resident, will take a very practical tack to the city’s business. When it comes to the issue of housing, he wants to see employers build housing. He favors mixed-use developments that include a combination of offices, stores and homes. They’re more likely to produce affordable housing than all-affordable developments, which will need some kind of subsidy.
But Varma is savvy and won’t be a shill for those who want more growth. Asked about Castilleja School’s expansion plan, he questioned what the benefit would be to residents if the school were to grow.
Importantly, if elected to council, he said he doesn’t want to change the opinions of residents but rather represent the community’s opinions.
Cari Templeton, chair of the Planning and Transportation Commission, will be an effective voice on council for more housing and improving public transit. Palo Alto has become unaffordable for most people, even children who have grown up here. She’s a progressive who has been involved in Democratic Party politics. She won’t be a pushover for developers or other special interests. She’s well-informed on issues given her experience on the planning commission and will hit the ground running.
Ed Lauing, another member of the Planning and Transportation Commission, has had a long career in the tech industry and later in recruitment. His skill set when it comes to hiring should help the council deal with personnel issues and getting the city manager to focus on council’s priorities. People often forget that any city council’s biggest and most challenging job is managing the city manager and other council-appointed officers.
On the planning commission, he’s taken a balanced approach between championing housing and guarding against excessive growth. In fact, he was one of three candidates who appeared on literature distributed by Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning, an important group that advocates for slow growth. On the planning commission and previously on the parks and rec commission, Lauing developed productive and respectful relationships with city employees, which indicates he will work well with other council members to get things done. And the planning commission is the best training ground for successful council members.
If two more seats were open on council, we’d happily recommend Steven Lee and Greer Stone. Each of them, in their own way, is a strong voice for social justice and would be effective champions of police reform.
Incumbents who failed
We’re not recommending the two incumbents, Lydia Kou and Greg Tanaka, who have accomplished nothing of note in their first terms.
When we asked Tanaka what he accomplished that made life better for residents, he claimed credit for closing University and California avenues during the pandemic to allow restaurants to operate outdoors. But the rest of council was pushing for that at the same time. And he also claimed credit for the $10,000 grants the city has handed out to local businesses. Again, that wasn’t his idea, and it’s not very significant to businesses with annual revenues in the seven- and eight-digit range. The city could have spent the money in a more effective way.
We liked Tanaka’s efforts to eliminate waste and encourage more competitive bidding by the city, but he has not been able to get any changes through council. His motions often go nowhere. In four years, he should have been able to forge relationships on council that would have made him effective.
On any board, you have to know how to persuade your colleagues if you want to succeed.
To the developer community that has funded his campaigns, you wasted your money.
We also can’t recommend Lydia Kou, who is on the opposite side of the growth issue in Palo Alto. She’s ineffective and appears clueless at times. For instance, during the June 15 council meeting, she asked who were the parties in the police union contract. She was told the contract, or memorandum of understanding, was between the city and the police union, representing the officers.
That moment was jaw-dropping.
Here’s a council member who has been participating in closed-door discussions about contracts involving the city’s labor unions for 3½ years, and she’s asking about the basics.
Frequently, Kou will ask a question during a council meeting that was answered in the packet of materials the city manager gives to members beforehand. She doesn’t do her homework.
The slow-growth advocates should have better representation on council.
Contrast Kou’s long learning curve with that of Alison Cormack, who joined the council two years ago. From her first council meeting, Cormack was fully versed in each agenda item and has been asking penetrating questions as if she were a council veteran.
It’s disappointing that we can’t recommend Tanaka and Kou, but they’ve accomplished nothing that would make this community a better place. It’s best to look elsewhere for leadership.
The Post recommends Burt, Varma, Templeton and Lauing for City Council.